Storm Powered by Rookies
When the Seattle Storm began the 26-2 run that would open up an insurmountable lead in Tuesday's win over the New York Liberty, Sue Bird was not on the court. Neither was Betty Lennox. Instead, as the Storm kicked off that run, four rookies - guards Francesca Zara and Tanisha Wright, forward Natalia Vodopyanova and center Suzy Batkovic - joined All-WNBA forward Lauren Jackson on the court.
"I feel good about the development, absolutely," said Storm Coach Anne Donovan. "With confidence in the first half, T, Zara, Batkovic and Vodo really came in and really got the lead for us. I feel really good about where they are."
Given Donovan's reputation as a fan of veterans - rookies combined to play just 95 points for the Storm last season, 118 in 2003 - the Storm's sudden rookie-heavy leaning is a bit surprising. To Donovan, it was necessary when the Storm incurred heavy losses in free agency over the winter.
"Our commitment when we let Tully (Bevilaqua), Kamila (Vodichkova) and Sheri (Sam) go on their way was that we had to get young players that we could develop," she explains. "(We were) not really sure how strong we'd be this season, knowing that with so many new faces we'd have to have time to develop it. I'm pleased with the development so far, but we still have a long way to go."
Already, the rookies' development is obvious. Wright and Zara started the season highly prone to turnovers, but improved quickly when forced to share the point-guard spot when Bird was sidelined by two broken bones in her face. Now, they give Donovan a pair of backcourt options off the bench depending on whether the team needs more ballhandling or defense.
"I think it was just something that needed to be done," said Wright of stepping up during Bird's absence. "Sue was out, and besides Zara, we didn't have another point guard. It was just something that needed to be done, whether you like it or don't like it."
"Vodopyanova is somebody that we really had to trust we were going to develop," Donovan explained. "When we were at the point of making decisions with our roster, she really hadn't shown us much yet, but it was the confidence that she would develop into what we needed, and she has."
The decision to keep Vodopyanova on the roster is one of many times in the past nine months Donovan has had to choose between taking a long-term decision-making view and playing for the short term, something the coach in her naturally pulls for.
"The first test of that was when they came after Tully last year. That was the first test," said Donovan. "We could have sunk a whole lot of money in a reserve, but it just didn't logically make sense. I think one benefit for me is that I was raised pretty logically and with the ability to look at the big picture as well as the immediate future. Add to that Karen Bryant and a lot of people helping make good, sound decisions."
At the same time, a long-term viewpoint would have been meaningless had Donovan been unable to find talented players. The Storm wasn't the only team to go overseas this off-season, but no other international rookie has played more than 107 minutes.
"I think we work hard to do our homework and really target players that we feel like can help plug up some holes we had after last season," said Donovan. "I've been fortunate to coach with USA Basketball, so I've been out, I've looked at a lot of the free agents from the international scene. I also have a feel for what works in the WNBA and what might not work.
"All the rookies we were able to get, it just felt like if we could give them time and minutes on the floor this year and work with them in a practice setting and develop them, all of them had the potential to help us down the road."
The question that lingers is whether it is fair to even call the Storm's players, with the exception of first-round pick Wright, "rookies." At 29, Zara has years of experience in Italy. Batkovic, "Could play in any league, anywhere," says Donovan. "She's just so talented." And even Vodopyanova, the least experienced of the three at age 24, has been a starter in Euroleague and played in the 2004 Olympics.
Zara also pointed out some of the major differences between playing in Europe and the WNBA.
"In Europe, we practice twice a day - morning and night," she said. "Here, it's better because you practice like two hours or three hours once in a day, which is very good because you have time to recover for the day after - we practice at night almost every day. A lot of travel here is long travel like five hours on a plane. In Europe, the longest flight is three hours to go to Moscow.
"In Europe, we have many team rules. We have to eat together, we have to stay together. If you want to go out, you have to ask the coach. We're treated like professionals here, and I like that."
Yes, the Storm's players are rookies, even if they don't play like it. And as they continue to develop their games and gain WNBA experience, expect more performances like Tuesday's.